Georgia's Fragile Balance of Power

President Shevardnadze's final term of office is likely to see a fierce power struggle between his political heirs

Georgia's Fragile Balance of Power

President Shevardnadze's final term of office is likely to see a fierce power struggle between his political heirs

Friday, 6 April, 2001

Georgia's political heavyweights are already rolling up their sleeves in preparation for the leadership battle of 2005.

The ongoing power struggle was thrown into the spotlight last month when President Eduard Shevardnadze announced plans to resign as leader of the ruling Citizens' Union (CU) party.

The move has been interpreted as a warning to ambitious party members who are manoeuvring for prime positions in the post-Shevardnadze era - politicians who, according to Republican Party leader David Berdzenishvili, still rely on the president's support.

The shock announcement comes against the backdrop of widespread political scandal in Tbilisi.

Last month, CU activists accused interior minister Kakha Targamadze and several top officials of staging an unethical takeover of the Dinamo Tbilisi football team.

Koba Davitashvili, a CU deputy, called for Targamadze to resign if the truth of the accusations was proved.

Targamadze, however, denied the claims and said he would be taking legal action against the Tbilisi newspapers which had published the reports.

Political observers in Tbilisi agree that the CU activists decided to lock horns with Targamadze after the interior minister ousted a veteran Shevardnadze supporter, Dzhamlet Babilashvili, from the post of prosecutor general.

Babilashvili was replaced by one of Targamadze's old allies, Georgy Meparishvili, then chairman of the parliamentary committee on legal affairs.

However, President Shevardnadze was quick to support his minister, commenting that Targamadze could not be blamed for all the problems of Tbilisi's top team.

It was then that the CU members turned their political guns on another presidential hopeful -- Temur Shashiashvili, governor of Imeretia, an industrial region with its capital in Kutaisi.

Shashiashvili had previously criticised the party activists for ratifying the Zero Option - rejecting Georgia's 1.62 per cent share in the assets of the former Soviet Union. He said they had used their 120-strong majority in the Tbilisi parliament to force through the bill "in a bid to preserve their own positions".

Eduard Surmanidze, general secretary of the CU, promptly told journalists that, if Shashiashvili did not agree with the policies of the ruling party, he should have the courage to tender his resignation. "Shashiashvili is a liar," concluded Surmanidze.

Shashiashvili is now threatening a court action against the CU general secretary, claiming the attack was part of a "witch-hunt against anyone who stands in the way of the authorities".

The Imeretia governor went on to say, "They will force the president to dismiss me. The tone is now being set by corrupt politicians who cannot endure ordinary people."

Shashiashvili has won the support of the opposition. Georgy Targamadze, chairman of the United Georgia parliamentary faction, called on the governor to resign in protest. Targamadze believes that Shashiashvili - who has already announced his intention to stand in the 2005 presidential elections - has fallen foul of Zurab Zhvania's political cabal.

Most observers in Tbilisi speculate that Zhvania - currently the speaker of the Georgian parliament - is actively clearing himself a path to the presidential chair.

In a recent meeting of the CU leadership, President Shevardnadze said that he looked on Zhvania as a son - a clear recognition of the fact that Paata Shevardnadze, who works for UNESCO in Paris, is not being considered as a potential heir.

But the comment was also deliberately aimed at the younger members of the CU, who are becoming increasingly restless. Two of these - wine magnate Levan Gachechisladze and David Gamkrelidze, president of leading insurance company Aldagi -- recently set up the New Faction party after being dismissed from the CU by Shevardnadze.

It is just 12 years since Zhvania, now 37, made his first public appearance as leader of the Green party at a National Independence Movement meeting. A graduate of the biology faculty at Tbilisi University, Zhvania swept into parliament in 1992, transforming the Green party into a serious political force.

Over the next three years, Zhvania worked to create a powerful pro-Shevardnadze majority in the Georgian parliament, uniting former Communist Party workers, the Soviet intelligentsia and young, ambitious businessmen.

The CU party was formed in November 1993, gaining its financial power from the collective wealth of its members and the booming shadow economy. In the 1995 elections, the president's party won 120 seats out of 235 and Zhvania was named parliamentary speaker.

Through Zhvania, President Shevardnadze has deliberately created a counterbalance to the old guard - represented by political heavyweights such as Kakha Targamadze. In this way, he can be sure that, even after he relinquishes the reins of government in 2005, the oligarchic clan system formed during his presidency will be preserved together with the interests of his immediate family.

Mikhail Vignansky is the editor of the Prime News information agency in Tbilisi and the Sevodnya correspondent in Georgia

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